'Ferdinand' jumps to the screen nicely

AP
This holiday season, there's all manner of conflict at your local movie theater – Jedis battling in the stars, Winston Churchill warring in Europe and athletes dueling on ice.
AP

Lily Day (above) and John Cena in a scene from “Ferdinand”

This holiday season, there’s all manner of conflict at your local movie theater — Jedis battling in the stars, Winston Churchill warring in Europe and Olympic athletes dueling on ice.

And then there’s that 2,000-pound bull that refuses to fight.

“Ferdinand” is a first-rate animated tale adapted from the beloved 1936 children’s book about a pacifist Spanish bull who just loves to sit around and sniff flowers. It’s often dark, sometimes whacky, but true to the heart of the book and beautifully brought to life in modern Spain.

Carlos Saldanha, the director of “Rio” and “Ice Age”, and screenwriters Robert L. Baird, Tim Federle and Brad Copeland faced a daunting task turning a spare 66-page book by Munro Leaf and Robert Lawson into more than 100 minutes of film.

But they’ve largely succeeded, while adding more serious issues along the way, including animal rights, rigged economic systems, nature versus nurture, cowardice, and the importance of looking out for each other. Not bad for a kid’s flick, huh? It also plunges another sword in the sport of bullfighting.

At its core, “Ferdinand” is an anti-bullying statement that stars a bull. In a neat twist, that bull who refuses to fight is voiced by professional wrestler John Cena, a man who makes his living with violence.

Ferdinand is bred to fight but won’t. His dad and peers at a bullfighting ranch all want to go into the ring and take on a matador. “Is it OK if it’s not my dream?” the young Ferdinand asks. No, he’s told. “You’re either a fighter or you’re meat.”

After his father disappears, our bullish conscientious objector manages to escape and ends up in a peaceful flower farm, lovingly taken care of by a young girl. Good for Ferdinand, but bad for the filmmakers, who have more than another hour more to fill.

Enter a cavalcade of strange and bewildering creatures — three crafty hedgehogs, three condescending Lipizzaner horses and an unhinged goat called Lupe. Kate McKinnon voices the goat and her performance is Robin Williams-in-”Aladdin” level work. 

A film that was overly dark suddenly gets an infusion of silliness and comic genius.

We take a few detours — there’s a brilliant dance competition between break-dancing bulls and the prancing horses; an unorthodox running of the bulls, this time with the animals chased by bad guys through the streets on Segways; and an utterly wonderful interpretation of a bull in a china shop.

Ferdinand is the only bull to realize that the entire bullfighting game is fixed and tries to convince his peers to flee.

Ferdinand rescues some of his pals from the “chop shop”, then sacrifices himself for the good of the group and faces the meanest matador in all of Spain.

There are weird notes. It’s strange to hear the Ferdinand we grew up with under a Spanish cork tree now have a SoCal surfer accent.

This is a film with world-class animation, revealing everything from astonishingly rich crowd scenes to rusty details on an old pail. The animators have made wet fur feel tactile and show car headlights bouncing off other cars.

So for the overall message of the film — “Live your own life” — we have one word: “Ole!”

Special Reports
Top